‘There they are!’ said Malachi. He poked Jayce with his elbow so hard he bumped into Coral.
Coral pushed him back to Malachi. ‘Hey!’
‘Sorry. They’re out of the forest?’ Jayce asked.
‘Yeah. Was there a landslide? The ground just changed from trees to rocks.’
‘They’re in the gullies. Those are old obsidian mines which have been collapsing under the streams.’ Jayce adjusted the display to see several kilometres ahead of the race. ‘See that waterfall ahead? It all comes out there.’
‘That waterfall is the next checkpoint, Jayce.’
‘So, what happens when they cross it?’
‘They’ll dive down the cliff. It’s okay, the skimmers can take it.’
‘But Ellie doesn’t know how to do that. Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘I just found out! You literally just told me.’
Malachi tapped his headset. ‘Ellie?’
‘Yep. I’m in fourth place. Red stalled in the trees.’
‘Nice work Ellie. Listen, the next waypoint just came in. It’s the edge of a waterfall.’
‘Just stay alert. Pull up early and let the antigrav do the work.
‘You want me to fly over a cliff?’
‘Don’t panic, Ellie.’
‘I’m not panicking! This is going to be amazing!’
They entered the gullies.
Blake and his cohort led the way with White close behind. Ellie brought up the rear.
The stream had forked here and the soft earth floor of the forest had given way to hard rock walls of pale grey where the topsoil had been eroded down to the volcanic bedrock. The landslip at the edge of the forest had broken the ground in such a way that the water’s path had fractured along with the earth. Tributaries branched off to the left and the right. Some disappeared under the rocks. Only a thin trickle was left to chart the same course as the race.
The water had been painted the grey rocky floor of the gulley black where it had gathered speed and splashed clear of its channel.
The roar from the skimmer engines echoed off the canyon walls and magnified the bubble of sound in which they raced.
Ellie saw the pack ahead, three skimmers side by side. White on the left, Blake’s yellow-and-black in the middle and Kian’s Blake’s green-and-yellow on the right. They moved almost as one.
Ellie held her position in fourth place. Now was not the time to push forward. Not yet. This terrain was new. She had to study it first, and see what the others did.
‘Here. The road looks good from here. What do you see?’
‘Lots of rocks. The walls are getting higher.’
‘Jayce says not to worry. He’s raced this before. He says its mostly straight, no hard turns to worry about, so just follow the path and take them if it’s safe. Okay?’
‘I’ll take them when I can.’
‘Sure, but when it’s safe, right?’
Ellie closed the link. Safe was for other people.
The gully deepened and widened into a canyon, and the pack raced through a corridor of stone. The only plant life Ellie could see were trees and shrubs at the top of each canyon wall where the ground was flat enough for roots to find purchase in the thin soil.
The path turned left. Blake and Kian moved as one. White turned a half-second later, and the delay cost him his place. He settled behind the leaders, waiting for an opportunity.
Ellie studied their racing lines and turned early, shaving the distance between them metre by metre.
With more turns like that I could pass them.
The canyon straightened out and Ellie made her move. She powered forward. The detail in the rock walls around her blurred into shades of grey and the distance between her and the pack began to close.
With a clear road ahead of them, White began probing the leaders. He snaked left and right, looking for an opening that wasn’t there. Blake and Kian flew as a team, staying equidistant from the walls and from each other. Working together, they denied White every opportunity to pass.
Ellie moved closer. She sensed an opportunity was near. The others were concentrating only on first place – how to keep it and how to take it. That meant they weren’t thinking about her.
That gave her the advantage.
The earphone sparked up. ‘Ellie!’
‘Not now, Mal!’
‘If you’re going to pass do it soon. The canyon narrows up ahead. It’s only big enough for two.’
‘That’s what I’m about to do! Stop interrupting me!’
‘Hurry. It’s now or never.’
White drifted left again, putting pressure on Blake, trying to force an error. Ellie was far back enough to see it wasn’t going to work. Blake would move left and close the gap between himself and the canyon wall. In response, White would swing back the other way and try and pass on the centre line, between Kian and Blake, or he would move all the way to the right, and try to pass Kian on the outside. Either way, Kian would see him and cut him off long enough for Blake to move back to his place on the centre left of the canyon.
But if Blake overcompensated on his move back to the centre that would leave a small opening on his left, assuming everything went to plan.
Assuming White and Blake moved as she needed them to.
Ellie didn’t know who was inside the white skimmer, but she knew how racers thought.
White was nearing the edge of his swing left. Blake was already countering. The gap between them and the wall was the smallest it could be.
There was no room to pass.
Ellie trusted her instincts, grinned, and accelerated.
White reached his limit and turned back. Blake, anticipating this, moved at almost the same time.
Each was concentrating on the other.
Neither saw Ellie approaching.
White and Blake swung right. The space between them and the wall widened, but it was not quite enough for a skimmer to pass through in level flight.
Ellie rolled her skimmer to the right. Trusting the anti-grav to push her away from the wall, Ellie took take the gap sideways.
But as she entered the gap, Blake saw her.
He sneered at her through the canopy of his skimmer and slammed his controls left. White didn’t matter any more. It was Ellie he needed to take out of the race.
Ellie reacted in a fraction of a second. She couldn’t escape by going faster. She couldn’t give up her chance to pass Blake. She couldn’t afford to let him crash into her.
She hit boost for the second time.
The anti-grav exploded from the underside of her skimmer once more and kicked against the rock where the canyon wall met the floor.
Ellie’s skimmer flipped up and over the skimmers and landed on the far side of the canyon. Now Kian was on her left, and behind them White looked on, incredulous.
Ellie wobbled, steadied, and pushed forward. The rock walls flashed by in a blur. She exhaled after the rush of the crazy manoeuvre. Then Ellie sucked in a lungful of air in fright.
Ahead of them, the canyon had narrowed to the width of two skimmers.
The walls were closing in. Fast.
Blake edged forward, forcing her closer to the wall on her right. Kian boxed her in on the left. White was behind her. Ellie couldn’t accelerate free of the trap in time. There was nowhere to go. Out of options, Ellie punched the heel of her palm onto the boost one more time. She braced for the anti-grav but this time the force took her by surprise.
The supercharged pulse kicked down twice as hard as before. The violent leap crushed Ellie into her seat and knocked the wind from her.
The console buzzed an angry red alert at her. Using the anti-grav twice in such a short time had overloaded the impellers and knocked it offline.
Ellie soared into the air. This time there were no tree branches to claw at her skimmer. She crested the edge of the canyon and sailed high into the air. In a few seconds, she would begin the gentle arc back to the hard rocks below.
Malachi’s voice buzzed urgently in her ear. ‘What happened?’
Ellie replied with unusual calm. ‘I broke the anti-grav. I’m twenty metres up. I cleared the canyon.’
‘You’re not supposed to do that.’
‘I know! I’m going to crash, Mal.’
‘Impellers will be back in fifteen seconds.’
‘I’m going to hit the ground in ten.’
‘Open flaps and landing gear, anything to create drag and slow down.’
‘That won’t work.’
‘It will, you need to slow down.’
‘I need to go faster.’
‘Ellie, you can’t- ‘
‘Trust me! No time to explain!’
The skimmer passed the zenith of its climb and began to fall. There was no time to panic, so Ellie concentrated on not crashing.
At fifteen metres, Ellie calmly, quickly and methodically ran through checks and hit controls in sequence to fire up the anti-grav cushion before she hit the ground.
The warning buzzer sounded again. That wasn’t going to work.
At ten metres, impact warnings shrieked their concern.
‘I know, I know,’ Ellie told the skimmer, as if it was nothing more than a minor annoyance. Below her the race had moved on, following the canyon to the left. She tried to steer back but the skimmer wasn’t an aircraft or a zero-g racer. It didn’t move in the same way.
The ground raced up to meet her. Impact was seconds away.
At five metres, Ellie levelled out the skimmer’s path. She counted three more seconds, then aimed at the ground and accelerated.
‘Ellie…’ said Malachi’s voice in her ear.
The buzzer was screaming now. She killed it and held her course.
She nudged a correction and held her breath. This was going to work, or the race was over.
One metre. Ellie squeezed her eyes shut. Looking now wouldn’t do her any good.
Negative one metres.
Negative two metres.
Negative three metres.
The cockpit chimed. The impellers came back on line.
The skimmer bottomed out against the rock floor of another canyon. The invisible force generated by the impellers cushioned Ellie from the worst of the impact, but white-yellow sparks still sprayed behind her.
Ellie bounced around the cockpit as the skimmer bounced around the canyon, but she fought the controls and won. Certain that Jayce wouldn’t mind a few scrapes and dents, she whooped with excitement.
‘Ellie?’ Malachi’s sounded worried.
‘I’m a genius!’
‘You’re lucky there was another canyon so close.’
‘Luck’s got nothing to do with it, Mal.’
‘Well don’t get ahead of yourself, professor. You’re not out of this yet. That canyon’s a dead end.’